Against bold visions
An essay by Chris Hayes for Speech Sounds, bringing a critical perspective towards the politics of art, hope and imagination
Speech Sounds is a programme of research projects, learning events, collaborative workshops, digital displays and artistic commissions that explore the role speculative thinking, devices and narratives can play in reimagining ideas of communication, disability and bodily difference. Crucially, the artists involved share affinities with, and the experience of being in, bodies that are considered disabled, modified or marginalised in some way. Through formal strategies and conceptual frameworks, each seeks expansive definitions which include the human, non-human, fictional and historical. Communication, whether it takes the form of verbal speech, the written word, sign language or in digital contexts, is central to how we develop a sense of ourselves within the world, how communities are created and evolved, and how we relate to each other. Fiction has historically played a critical role in testing these limits by creating space for dissent from the status quo and for coded alliances to transcend it. Science fiction is especially motivated by this impulse when it takes technology and our place within the universe as its subject to open up arguments around the dominant forms of politics, taking inspiration from the internet, ecology and the vastness of the cosmos to expand notions of how we relate to the world and each other..
In recent times, we’ve witnessed an inflection point around how sci-fi is understood, shifting from the low-brow to a genre perceived as rewarding deeper introspective readings. Consider the contrast, as the curator of Speech Sounds Iarlaith Ni Fheorais has proposed, between the usage of sci-fi and conceptions of communication within the writing of Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, both of whom have gained much critical acclaim as the genre’s reputation has matured, and recent major Hollywood films: the award-winning commercial success Arrival (2016) or Knowing (2009), starring Nicolas Cage. Each of these references conjure ideas of communication in unconventional ways, suggesting that the gaps between subjects – whether human or non-human – can be uniquely revealing, offering insights about the nature of experience within and through difference. Yet what exactly do Octavia Butler, the first sci-fi writer to win a MacArthur Fellowship, and Nicolas Cage, an actor noted for his captivatingly ridiculous performances, have in common? At an initial glance, not much. Throughout Butler’s oeuvre, her characters reframe commonplace definitions of the heroic and her narratives put forth a profoundly ethical critique to undermine hierarchy, all with a nod to a radical Afrofuturism. In Knowing (2009), on the other hand, the plot centers around predictably ableist tropes and cliches regarding the deaf child of Cage’s character. But Ni Fheorais is attempting to do more than reconstitute the critical potential of sci-fi through the perspective of Black, trans, disabled and other experiences. These contrasts point to strong tendencies within the programme; the resistance to easy, straightforward narratives; the darker histories of violence that underpin humanity; the potential for the speculative, for hope itself, to be a weapon that must be resisted, probed and seized for an unexpected purpose.
The title of the programme is taken from a short story written by Butler, which describes a pandemic that causes severe brain damage across the population, rendering the broad mass of people unable to speak except for one individual, raising questions around survival and communication, purpose and humanity: a troublesome allegory of disability. Both Butler’s story and Ni Fheorais’s programme establish a different kind of picture than the term ‘speculative devices’ may initially suggest. Instead of technological gimmicks about cyborgs and space stations, a complicated image of bodies as sites of reimagining language and its multitude of expressions begins to emerge. While there are significant overlaps and shared affinities amongst the artists, for the sake of clarity let’s begin with a consideration of how Maïa Nunes, Jennifer Mehigan and Ebun Sodipo embrace an expansive approach to embodied experience and difference to investigate the limits of communication, often relying on the discovery and construction of narratives that expand and rip apart commonplace understandings of how identity enables individual and collective agency.
Maïa Nunes demonstrates how imaginative conceptions of communication can expand and trouble familiar starting points of identity in their newly-commissioned sound work CROSSINGS (2021). Human beings have long travelled the oceans, sometimes tragically drowning, other times in the pursuit of profit and plunder, occasionally being encaptured or fleeing, eventually learning to navigate the vast open space between lands. A counterintuitive materiality of song and water informs their formal and conceptual concerns. Sound doesn’t dissolve in water but travels through vibrations; while the ocean as a landscape is a crucial site within human history. Nunes is referencing their twin heritages as an Irish and Trinidadian person, as both peoples have experienced the ocean and sea from small islands, with larger patterns of migration and displacement shaping who they are individually and collectively – perhaps spiritually, too.
Sharing a similar desire to test, investigate and search the potentials of embodied experience, artist Jennifer Mehigan, a PhD candidate at the Belfast School of Art, will spend their time researching queer histories of graveyards through Irish botanical gardens, the output of which will be a commisioned website including text, images, archive material and artworks. Whereas Nunes grounds their efforts within the embodied geographies of the artist’s own heritage to begin a curious re-narrativisation of the ocean as a site of history and song as a conceptual framework, Mehigan is engaging in a research process that is piecing fragments and references together to construct and locate an alternative account of queer history. Both overlap within a counterintuitive materiality of place and ritual, complicating notions of survival, time, memory, death and community.
It’s not the case that a commercial gallery or major museum would necessarily be resistant to showcasing queer or disaporic histories by research-led and experimental practices. If anything, in recent years we’ve witnessed a sudden, sharp transformation of institutional interest in underrepresented artists and alternative histories. Yet, this rapid-pace reprioritisation never happened on the artists’ own terms or in their own interests. The continuation of low fees for long-term projects, an ever-expanding demand to engage and activate so-called ‘hard-to-reach communities’ or ‘hidden histories’, the closing gap between private interests and public spaces, demonstrates how the power dynamics never changed. Speech Sounds signals a turning away from the demands of an ever-corporatised cultural sphere when it pushes for a shift in the relationship between artist and organisation towards the generation of knowledge, insights and material that will continue and feed an artist’s practice.
Place and identity are not contexts which can always be benignly received by an individual. Often fraught and shadowed in violence, for many individuals, personal and collective histories must be constructed and fought for as much as they can be found, accepted or expressed. Ebun Sodipo, a Black trans interdisciplinary artist from London, is also using her time within Speech Sounds as a generative process for her practice, hosting a workshop with trans people in Ireland to gather narratives as part of the ongoing, ambitious project, Following the Gourd (2021). This project looks back to stories of Black people using the established African knowledge of cosmology to take over slave ships and navigate home, and the place of trans people in this history. By referencing a history of Black cosmology tied to escape and resistance, Sodipo is engaged in an active process of mapping and storytelling to establish an expansive context to think about other forms of shared knowledge. How does this change how we consider notions of the body and communication? For Sodipo, history is not something received passively; kinship is an active process, a political struggle and a dangerous but essential terrain.
While all the artists offer sensitive readings and re-readings of place and experience, the formal interventions and strategies by Jonah King and Kumbirai Makumbe raise fruitful questions around authorship and set in motion a conversation about expansive conceptions of identity. Jonah King, an Irish artist with an interest in technology, is producing a new virtual reality work titled Honey Fungus (2021). King’s piece cites mycelium networks as a metaphor for the erotic interconnectedness of the ecology of human narratives as part of a larger world-building project. Running alongside this, they are hosting a “low-energy” workshop inviting participation in the production of digital human characters and narratives that will feature within the piece. Involving the audience into the production process opens up ideas of authorship of the artwork, while the low-energy workshop acknowledges the varying capacities and needs of audiences, again echoing the demands on their labour in the process. Kumbirai Makumbe, on the other hand, is an artist and designer whose work explores an expansive idea of Blackness, paying close attention to the experience of being in-between places and identities. Previous projects from Makumbe have taken the form of ambiguous, amorphous digital figures against open landscapes washed in a synthetic gradient palette: shapes float and hover; surfaces gleam with a semi-transparent shine and glitter. They will continue these themes through the new sculptural and sound piece, Anatopia (2021), which blurs the lines between the human and non-human, between the fictional and the real, as a way of situating personal histories within ancestral geographies.
While many of the artists involved reference darker histories and offer ambiguous conclusions, perhaps Joey Holder most directly subverts the expectation that speculative devices would necessarily offer ‘bold visions’ or outline ‘new worlds’ that lead to neat conclusions around art, hope and imagination. Holder, an artist based between Nottingham and London, is known for a curiously saturnine approach to humanity’s relationship with technology. Continuing her interest in the limits of the human and how we experience non-human, natural and technological forms, she will conduct research on deep sea life as part of Abyssal Seeker, a long-running multi-media series that offers a critical exploration of techno-politics and big data science through the deep sea creatures which resist clear taxonomies.
Institutional interest in speculative projects and the use of fiction is often driven by a desire for a straightforward politics of hope. Curators and directors understand how such programming can be easily marketed with hollow statements about imagining new worlds, and in turn, position the institution as radical, experimental and brave. Yet, just as often as the content relies on cliches and tropes, the organisation itself is hardly a model for how bold new worlds could be constructed; instead, relying on highly-stratified hierarchies and dubious corporate agendas. The gallery as a site of ‘play’ and ‘imagination’ is not empowering if actual material efforts completely undermine the supposed politics of publicly-stated aspirations.
In a conversation about the inspirations motivating the programme, curator Iarlaith Ni Fheorais explained that the desire to give more flexible timelines and outcomes was partially personal too. Ni Fheorais is transitioning during the programme; a demanding process which significantly influenced her understanding of how the body changes, how language shifts and the capacity to work in a medicalised body. Much of the considerations the artists gave towards knowledge production and community formation are reflected within the trans community, who engage in extensive peer-to-peer knowledge sharing as little official support exists.
Speech Sounds doesn’t just aim to offer a vision of the world as it is today and the history it emerges from, but also expresses a desire to break with familiar approaches to how art is commissioned and disseminated amongst audiences. By muddling authorship and resisting demanding cycles of production, the artists in the programme are finding fertile ground for discussion around the politics of imagination and a considered reflection on how identity both demands and shapes agency. In Speech Sounds, the artists are asking awkward questions and reaching messy conclusions.
Chris Hayes is a writer based between Ireland and London with an interest in contemporary art and politics.